(director/writer: Hal Hartley; cinematographer: Michael Spiller; editor: Hal Hartley; music: The Brothers Kendall/Jim Coleman/Wild Blue Yonder; cast: Adrienne Shelly (Audry Hugo), Robert John Burke (Josh Hutton), Chris Cooke (Vic Hugo), Julia McNeal (Pearl), Katherine Mayfield (Liz Hugo), Gary Sauer (Emmet), David Healy (Todd Whitbread), Mark Bailey (Mike), Edie Falco (Jane, waitress); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Hal Hartley/Bruce Weiss; Miramax Films; 1989)

“Hilarious black comedy.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is writer-director Hal Hartley’s (“Trust”/”Henry Fool”) first feature — shot in a little over a week in his hometown of Lindenhurst for a miniscule budget of something like $75, 000. It’s a starkly hilarious black comedy that sinks its fangs into middle-class angst on Long Island and how people use money as a tool to corrupt one another. Hartley’s later trademarks–rapid dialogue, understated philosophizing, droll humor, quirky characters who say exactly what they are thinking and original storyline–are all refreshingly present in this auspicious film debut.

The handsome Josh Hutton (Robert John Burke) is hitching from upstate N.Y. to his hometown in Long Island after spending a long prison stretch for murder. On the road and back in his hometown, because he’s dressed in all-black and has a serious demeanor, he’s mistaken for a priest. But he’s a mechanic, a skill he learned in prison. While at the library, the twentysomething engages in a conversation with high school student Audry Hugo (Adrienne Shelly) about the virtues of George Washington. She lends Josh a book on the first prez and recommends him as a mechanic to her father Vic (Chris Cooke), who owns an auto-repair shop. Though reluctant to hire an ex-con, Vic lets the money do the thinking for him as he observes that Josh is a top-notch mechanic that he can get for a song and his current mechanic Mike is only so-so.

Audry is going through a phase where she is depressed because she believes the world will soon end in an apocalypse, and though accepted to Harvard she refuses to attend. She has become a truant, quit her job at Burger World and has just dumped her self-absorbed boyfriend Emmet because he wears boxer shorts with dollar signs all over it. Pressured by her dad to attend an affordable college, like the local community college and study communication instead of literature, Audry makes a deal where both could be satisfied–she will attend community college if he donates $1,000 to her favorite anti-nuclear cause group. The lesson Hartley teaches, is that keeping one’s end of the bargain doesn’t make you a better person or mean that is the right thing to do.

Audry falls for the hunky Josh, and is not disturbed by the rumors her friends (who can’t really recall what exactly he did) circulate that Josh is a mass murderer. The film revolves around the possible romance between the innocents Audry and Josh, whose pure souls are misunderstood by those around them who think everything is about Money. Audry’s jealous ex-boyfriend follows her around and becomes belligerent and whiny, her money-obsessed father uses her by continually trying to make various deals to get her to do what he wants, and a wormy photographer (David Healy) tries to win his way to her body because he hooked her up as a successful model. Meanwhile Audry’s waitress girlfriend Pearl tells her, “He [Josh] seems like a nice man.” Audry asks, “Even though he killed your father and your sister?” It was Pearl’s sis who died in an auto crash when Josh was driving and drinking; it was also her father Josh killed by supposedly pushing him down the stairs a few years after trying to apologize for causing her death. Pearl is troubled and guilt-ridden, as she holds onto her dark secret about Josh for as long as she can before revealing ‘the unbelievable truth’ about what really happened.